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Big East Preview: Connecticut

Can Dan Hurley improve on last year’s 7 seed without James Bouknight?

NCAA Basketball: Marquette at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Last season demonstrated somewhat of a proof of concept for Dan Hurley’s leadership of UConn back into the Big East. I his third year at the helm and the program’s first back in the Big East after a 7 year sojourn in the AAC wilderness, the Huskies went 15-8, only lost once by double digits, and found their way back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.

Hurley’s men employed one of the slowest tempos in the country combined with a relentless attack on the offensive glass to grind out points while daring opponents to challenge their smothering defense in attempts to keep up. Their undoing came when Maryland cashed out at a 50% rate from three in the first round of the tournament and, despite and utterly ridiculous .468 offensive rebound rate, the Huskies simply couldn't buy a bucket.

Oh, well. Run it back next year, right? Except for a notable departure, pretty much.

Returning Players

The Huskies leading returning scorer is also their best outside shooter from last year’s team, RJ Cole. Cole had to adjust to the Big East after transferring in from Howard, where he could pretty much do whatever he wanted. He went for 12.2/3.0/4.3 and shot .386 from deep, but struggled to be efficient inside the arc, shooting at essentially the same percentage as he did from three. His backourt mate is the only other returning Huskie to average double figures, Tyrese Martin. Martin is not quite as explosive of a scorer as Cole, but is a fantastic all around player, as evidenced by his 10.3/7.5/1.0 line. He had 9 games of 8 or more rebounds, showing the nose for the ball he possesses as a 6’6” guard. The team’s vaunted defense will once again be anchored by co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Whaley, who averaged 8.0/6.2/1.5 while blocking 2.6 shots per game. Perhaps the biggest bellwether of this season’s fate for UConn will be the progress 6’9” Malian sophomore Adama Sanogo. Sanogo started last year fairly slowly, but scored double digits in 4 straight across the end of the regular season and the Big East Tournament, leading to hope that he can make the jump from his 7.3/4.8/0.6 to the dominating numbers that his potential suggests he is capable of. Tyler Polley, Jalen Gaffney, and Andre Jackson all return as well, having each averaged over 15 minutes a game last season as a pick and pop 4, an explosive scoring bench guard, and a do it all glue guy respectively. Akok Akok will look to get his college basketball career back on track as well after a pair of injury riddled seasons thus far.

Departures/Arrivals

The main departure is, of course, First Team All Big East guard James Bouknight, who led UConn with 18.7 ppg last season and came back from an elbow injury to be the star for the Huskies.

Tasked with filling that void will be a pair of 4 star guards in Jordan Hawkins, a 6’4” athletic shooting guard who ranked 50th in the Class of 2021, and Rahsool Diggins, a 6’1” point guard with well rounded offensive game who figures to find minutes backing up Cole. They are joined by 6’10” Samson Johnson who, like his high school teammate Sanogo, will likely ease into the rotation as he tries to come to grips with the speed of the game and add muscle to his frame. Filling out the top-10 class Hurley has incoming is top-100 guard Corey Floyd Jr., who can use his athleticism and physicality to his advantage in the open court and is a capable shooter from deep.

Outlook

Not many teams can lose a player of the profile of Bouknight and expect to be better come the start of the next season, but there is a reasonable expectation that UConn can improve on last season’s 7 seed. If their litany of explosive scoring guards can pick up some of the slack and Sanogo can make the jump and consistently display the form he showed at the end of last season, this will be a team that enters March with a good chance at making it to the second weekend.